Ayisha McMillan never imagined that dance would take her this far — from a studio in her hometown of Oak Park, Ill.; to companies here and in Houston; to stages in London, Hong Kong and across the globe.
"I'm amazed," McMillan said as she looked back on her career. "I'm just amazed and humbled. Who would have thought that a little brown girl from Oak Park would grow up to be a ballerina?"
If you have a picture in your mind of what a ballerina looks like, McMillan would fit the mold: tall, but not too tall; slender; perfect skin; and long hair that can easily be twirled into a perfect bun. Yes, it's clear that McMillan was born to be a dancer, and she put in the hard work throughout her life to make it happen. She trained in early American historic modern dance and ballet at MOMENTA in Oak Park, studied at Maria Tallchief's Chicago City Ballet School and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and had private lessons from dance legends like Homer Hans Bryant.
Her hard work landed her a spot with the Houston Ballet where she danced in Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and the lead Waltz Flower in the Nutcracker, among other productions. More recently, she danced for five seasons with the North Carolina Dance Theatre in Charlotte where she was the company's first African-American Clara in the Nutcracker. McMillan was living her dream. And, a bonus to that dream was the fact that she was breaking down racial barriers in the dance world.
"There's so few black ballerinas, so it wasn't uncommon for me to be the only black person on the stage," she said. "There were places I performed where in the past black people weren't allowed in the audience, let alone to dance on the stage. So it was really thrilling for me to know that I was doing this. That I was giving little black boys and girls another place to look at for a career."
Although, McMillan says she was fortunate to work with dance companies that didn't discriminate against her because of her race, there were a few instances in her 15-year dance career that caught her off guard.
"One choreographer I worked with said, 'I'd love to cast you as the lead, but we're in the Bible Belt so ...,'" she pointed to her arm, eluding to the fact the choreographer didn't want to cast her because she was black. "I was shocked. And this was in 1998!"
Ultimately, thanks to the artistic director of that company, McMillan was cast in the production, but the experience brought home the fact that discrimination was still an issue in the dance community.
"I was always aware that I was one of very few black ballerinas," she said. "It's a huge problem, and I'm sure black actresses feel the same way."
But McMillan was able to dance her way through it, and she achieved all her goals along the way. Now, at the age of 32 and after years of rigorous training and after having hip surgery, she is retired from dance.
"A 30-something saying they're retired is kind of weird for people to hear," said McMillan. "But dance is a career that doesn't last into old age because it's so, so rough on your body. I'll always be a dancer though."
While some dancers are forced to retire because of injuries, McMillan's wasn't so severe that it took her off the stage. Her retirement was completely by choice. "I felt fulfilled in my performances," she said, "and I felt like I could move on."
And moving on is exactly what she's doing. She has something "very exciting" on the horizon that she can't talk about yet, and she's back in school working toward a degree in dance so she can pass her years of experience on to the next generation of dancers.